A Choral Director and an iPad go into a Bar… (November 2013)

QR codeWell, not really. A Choral Director and an iPad go into the App Store and purchase ATTENDANCE2, recommended by Dr. Christopher Russell in his e-book iPads in Music Education. Once mastered, this app will potentially maximize the first few minutes of your large ensemble rehearsals.

At the start of each school year, I ask my singers to complete an information sheet in two ways. The first is through a tinyurl into a Google Doc database. I gather a long list of information which includes names and addresses, cell phone numbers, emails, birthdays, and the same for their parents/step-parents/guardians. The Google Doc database is then exported into Excel. The second way I gather information is via hard copy of the same information with the addition of questions of interest…What did you do over the summer? Do you study privately? What are your choral/vocal goals for the year?

This year I created a CSV file from that Excel database, placed the file in my DropBox account and imported the information into the ATTENDANCE2 app for my iPad. Created by David M. Reed, a computer science professor at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, ATTENDANCE2 is the new and improved update to ATTENDANCE, the app which was designed and intended for teachers to take and keep classroom attendance records.  ATTENDANCE2 now contains additional features which include:

  • The ability to create up to five fields for custom information about your students.
  • The ability to sort students by first name, last name, an identifier (I used their folder number), or any other the custom fields you’ve created for them.
  • The ability to customize the attendance status for each student; more than the standard “present, absent, excused, and late.” You can also add a secondary status option, to mark student participation, if they’ve turned in their homework, or anything else you can imagine tracking.
  • The ability to send to Dropbox.
  • The ability to email students their individualized attendance reports.
  • The ability to generate a QR code for every student in every class.

I generated a separate QR code for each student in each ensemble using their folder number as an identifier. I printed the codes on card stock, covered them with clear packing tape and taped them into their respective choir folders.

My singers now know they have to “scan in” for their attendance at the start of every rehearsal. Students who come into class late from lunch do the same. The entries are all time-stamped so there is no longer any discussion around arrival time or tardiness to class. My Choir Secretary enters the absences into my grade book where I can then check them against the school report that is emailed at the end of every school day.

Students are permitted to take a picture of their QR code and use their cell phone to scan in. We find the app recognizes the code just as quickly from a photo on their cell phone as from the cardstock original taped in their folder.

For $4.99, ATTENDANCE2 is a fantastic investment promoting a solid use of technology in the classroom!   My students and I just love it!


The Internet, iPhones, Ipads, Laptops and a Choral Ensemble’s Quarterly Assessment (November 2013)

Our high school has restructured its cumulative testing by removing final exams from the schedule. In place of exams, we have been asked to administer quarterly assessments.  The bell schedule for our nine-period day is disrupted for five days, every marking period, (four times a year), to create sixty-two minute assessment periods.  These assessments are not to exceed fifteen per cent of a grade and are cumulative up to the date of the assessment.  This change came about as a result of a survey that stated our students were under considerable stress as a result of having to take final exams and midterms.

While I have an extensive list of none-too-favorable opinions about this restructuring, this article will focus on the process by which I administered the marking period one quarterly to my SATB Concert Choir (100 singers) and my SSA Chorale (65 singers).

In October, each student was asked to complete a video assessment of the Region II Chorus audition material.  Students were graded using a rubric where I could add individual comments regarding personal growth and potential.  As the end-of-marking-period assessments were to be “pencil to paper”, I decided I would create an assessment of twenty-five multiple choice questions for each ensemble.  Questions would include references to the literature each ensemble was preparing for the Winter Choral Concert.

Rather than administer these assessments on actual printed paper, I decided to incorporate technology by creating a multiple choice test using Google Docs. All questions had four possible answers and all questions required a response before submitting.

Once the assessment was designed, I created a tinyurl from which each ensemble would retrieve the assessment online. I then asked both classes how many singers had devices from which they could access the internet. Approximately 85-90% of my singers had internet enabled devices.  I had already used a tinyurl during the first few days of school to gather their personal information, so I ran a mock assessment by asking them to log onto the tinyurl from the first day of school.  With the exception of a small handful with browser issues, everyone was able to access the day one Google Doc with ease.  Once the browser issues were fixed, we had 100% success with the internet access.

When the assessment day arrived, I assembled all my singers in my choir room with their internet-enabled devices.  I had hard copies of the assessment printed for those without access. The students took their choir folders to a spot in the room, logged onto the tinyurl and began their assessment.

As the students finished and submitted their work, I was able to refresh the browser on my iPad at the response site of the Google Doc to confirm their submissions. Once all assessments were completed, I ran the responses through Flubaroo which immediately provided a grade for each assessment.  From here, I could transfer grades into our Home Access Grading Center and into my grade book.  If the Google Doc is created requesting the student’s email address, Flubaroo will email results directly back to the student.

While it is unquestionably time-consuming to create a multiple choice assessment for a performance ensemble, the time spent on the front end was a solid investment, compared to the minimal amount of time it took to administer the assessment and retrieve and document the results from Flubaroo.

I’m hooked!

Choral Assessment – Listening Assignment (December 2011)

 Once a semester I record the singers in the Voorhees Choir at Rutgers University and create a listening assignment for them. They are to print my notes, listen to each recorded rehearsal track and prepare to make all of the proper changes in the rehearsals that lead to the final performance.

I also record my select high school ensemble but this semester I created a question/answer/response assignment for them. Rather then give them my notes; I turned my notes into questions. “What is wrong at m.23? How can you fix the pronunciation of the word BOUNDEN? What is the issue with the soprano entrance on page 3?” I also asked for paragraph responses “What was your overall impression of the recording? What are you working on to improve your contribution to the ensemble’s performance?”

They were graded on their responses. I was made immediately aware of the weak links in the group and was able to address their needs more directly.

I made the recordings available on our YouTube account as I recorded them on a Zoom Q3 recorder which is video/audio.

The next rehearsals were remarkably musical! Because I “tested” them on their material via this listening assignment, they invested in the concept of blend and balance, were very aware of their contribution to their section and the ensemble as a whole and were now willing to make the music come alive. It was a terrific assessment, one I will certainly use again.


Perhaps Wishing will Make it so… (December 2011)

After a recent conversation with several choral colleagues with whom I must have said a dozen times, “I wish my choir would. . .,” I decided to create a list of wishes for my high school ensembles—simple concepts like pure vowel sounds, unified choral blend, and warm tone quality.  I placed these wishes on the whiteboard in our rehearsal room and began referring to them in every rehearsal.

Soon I realized that the singers were buying into the idea of making those wishes come true!  I could ask a question about sections of the repertoire and student responses would come straight from the board and with a better understanding of what it was I was looking for in rehearsals and performances.

As a fun gift, one of the sophomores created a poster for display in the choir room. I reference it in almost every rehearsal. It has become a successful teaching tool!

What would you place on your choral rehearsal wish list?  I challenge you to create your own and then ask your classes: “You know what I wish? I wish for ______!”

Try asking your ensemble to create the list’s contents and perhaps all your wishes (and theirs) will come true!

Retzko’s Wish List
• Listen carefully around you
• NO diphthongs
• Take in more air than you need
• Warm tone quality
• Breath energy always
• Pure vowels
• Secure rhythms
• Breathe to the end of a phrase and beyond
• Don’t over-sing
• Know how important you are to the entire choir!

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (October 2011)

Are you familiar with Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements?

Be impeccable with your word – Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
Don’t take anything personally – Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
Don’t make assumptions – Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
Always do your best – Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.

I use these as a method of class discipline in my large ensemble, Concert Choir. We have an AGREEMENT; I give the class four minutes to come into the room, detox from their last class and share the latest earth shattering news with their friends before I call the class to attention. During this time, they are to enter the room, get their Choir folder, drop their backpack and move into the center of the riser set-up. For me, it is time that becomes a bartering point. I give you a few minutes; you give me your focus for the rest of the period.
As happens with time, they begin to stray from our AGREEMENT. They congregate outside the risers, they drop backpacks and neglect to get their folders. Section Leaders and Officers try to enforce the AGREEMENT with gentle reminders.
Ultimately, I will have to reign in the behavior with the following…(addressing the class after warm-ups)…”I thought we had an AGREEMENT. I give you a few minutes at the beginning of the period where you drop your backpack, get your folder and head into the center of the room. Seems we have lost sight of the AGREEMENT. So, let me re-state the options – I start the class as the bell rings and you suffer the consequences of lateness to the start of class OR we keep the AGREEMENT. What will it be?”
You know their choice. I find that this type of class discipline works for me. They are happy and I am happy. And the end result is a solid effort in creating a quality choral sound. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!
PS – This year my “call-to-order” for my large ensembles is the clapping sequence ♩♩♪♪♩. Not sure why it is so effective, (engrained from elementary school?) but the second I clap this pattern, my classes immediately stop talking and move into place. They remain quiet until I start the warm-up. I love it!

Sibelius 6 – A Tool for High School Choral Music Assessment (January 2011)

Edited by Joan Catoni Conlon, with text by Torquato Tasso, Claudio Monteverdi wrote a beautiful madrigal called Ecco Mormorar L’Onde. It is scored for SSATB and my auditioned A Cappella Choir will perform it this spring.

Ridge High School’s A Cappella Choir meets as a credited course, zeroperiod on Monday nights from 78:30p. After three years of participation, students are eligible for Honors credit. Twice a year, I create learning CD’s for their music using PhotoScore Ultimate and Sibelius 6. I also include solid recordings of all repertoire on their CD. Five student Section Leaders are responsible for onehour sectionals each week for eight weeks. This permits us to come together on Monday nights without the extra responsibility of teaching notes.

This ensemble is tested individually on their music. In the past, I would announce the sections that would be tested and use rehearsal time to hear every member of the group. While it served the purpose of testing, this process ultimately chewed through a full rehearsal.

Last fall, I assigned testing outside of school to be recorded and submitted via YouTube. We created an account with a private password and students coordinated their schedules to meet with their quartet/quintet to sing and submit their testing assignments.

This spring, I am trying yet another approach to testing. Because I can mute a line through Sibelius, I have provided Music minus One tracks for each student (similar to the recording they hear when they audition for AllState or Region II Chorus). The first assignment was the abovementioned madrigal.

In order to assess and grade them, I reduced the required pages of the score by 50% and cut and pasted each section onto a single sheet of paper. Once copied, I highlighted the voice part of the student I was about to observe.

With trusty red pen in hand, I was able to circle and mark improper pronunciation (their first assignment was pronunciationonly for testing), bad entrances, wrong pitches and faulty rhythms. There is space for me to comment, make suggestions and praise. I can monitor breath support and vocal technique as I watch them “perform”. I think they prefer this type of testing although I have yet to gather information for a consensus.

While the learning curve of Sibelius 6 may be steep, I have found it very helpful as an aid to the accurate assessment of the members of my select choir. I think you may as well.

NOTE:  This article was written during my tenure as Repertoire and Standards Chairperson-High School for NJ-ACDA.  I have continued to use this style of assessment in my ensemble classes.  Rather than reducing scores for grading, I now print a SIBELIUS 7 part sheet for each voice part.